Family Plot – Herb Levine


The man my grandmother didn’t marry was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, grandson of the poet. Forty, fifty, sixty years later, she still boasted of how the mature professor had fallen in love with her, a mere eighteen year old girl, proposing after seeing her for less than two hours as Isaiah’s wife in a play at the West End YMHA. His grandfather, he said, “had loved her people.” But her father, she replied, “didn’t love his.” That was where the story ended for her. But every time we drove down Brattle Street and passed the huge, yellow and white Longfellow House on our way to our cousins’ crowded apartment in Cambridge, I felt that somehow those Corinthian pilasters could have been, should have been ours. Hadn’t our grandmother been adored by his grandson? Hadn’t our grandfather been born on the same street as the Old North Church in whose belfry lamps were to be hung — one if by land and two if by sea? And didn’t our father proudly recite “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” to my brother and me every Patriot’s Day? 


When I would get home from school about 3:15, my live-in grandmother was inevitably glued to Queen for a Day. We listened as each contestant told her sad story, the one whose child was crippled from polio and needed new leg braces, the one who had six children and washed their clothes in a tub with a washboard and desperately needed a washing machine. The studio audience applauded for the one who had the saddest story to tell. The winner always broke down in tears, when the velvet robe was draped over her shoulders and the rhinestone tiara placed upon her head. But my Bobbe could never have appeared on this show. How could the network have given her what she longed for, her husband, dead for more than twenty years? And what else could make up for the separations she’d endured, the years when he played the trumpet to rally the troops against that year’s enemy – Japanese Germans White Russians – years he had peddled door to door to New England’s friendly housewives, years when she ran a market-day saloon for the unfriendly peasants. And then, when his money came, having to leave her mother behind, one day to be killed by Hitler’s thugs, and also her youngest brother and his wife, who left their baby with a Lithuanian woman to join the partisans, only to choose death in the town square, inviting the Nazis’ fire, so that their comrades could live to fight on. Had she been able to speak of these things, she surely would have been chosen as the Jews’ Mother of Sorrows, would have broken down at last and wept. 


I cannot forget that my son once raised a shovel against me, angry enough to kill, swore he had been falsely accused of taking money his sister had stolen. Hadn’t we had different rules for him and for her and didn’t that mean that we loved him less? And could my father forget that I once raised a knife against him when he stood over my shoulder instructing me how to properly carve the Thanksgiving turkey? And, after the ram was slaughtered, could Abraham forget the dripping knife that Isaac seized and held against his trembling throat? My son put the shovel down; I put down the knife. My mother gave me a tongue-lashing equal in fury to my own. My wife and I sent our rebellious son off to boarding school.


My father is alive again before me as I call to mind his jokes. He liked to tell a joke about a Hasid, with full beard and fur hat, serving as a mashgiach –- you know what a mashgiach is? A kosher watchdog who watches what goes out the milk kitchen shouldn’t come in the meat kitchen. So Goldberg saw him first one summer at Grossinger’s and then, the following winter, in Miami at the Fontainebleu and then on his big trip to Israel at the King David Hotel, where the lobby was filled with guys who looked just like him. “I know,” Goldberg says, “here you’re the mashgiach,” “Oh no — here I’m the golf pro,” upward mobility and assimilation being the great American Jewish themes.

Then there was the one about the only son finally getting married and preparing his long-suffering mother to meet his new bride, “And Ma, I haven’t told you; she’s black ” – “Sure, bring her home, you can sleep in my bed” — “But Ma, where will you sleep?” “About me, don’t worry. When you hang up, I’m committing suicide,” which he told a lot just when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was showing, in case we came away from the movie with the wrong idea. 


The doctors say pneumonia has cut off oxygen to his brain. Or is it the meds or the black box of his mind on auto-pilot that scoots from min ha-aretz to Minny Horowitz to the Gold-Barons whose buried treasure we might still find in Revere’s churchyard — one if by land and two if by sea? So I lead him down green pastures beside still waters until he starts reciting, May the Lord bless you and keep you, cause his countenance to shine upon you, show you favor and grant you peace. And did I know he’d been offered a woman to sleep with last night? Feh, he grimaces and flicks his hand as at a giant bug threatening the purity of his world.

  I am the son who wrapped himself in Shabbat and holidays, led the congregation in melodious song, was the one who trusted he would one day receive his father’s blessing. So what that I’d prayed to an improbable God? All that ritual razzmatazz had fooled my fond old man and me. Then my brother showed up each week for eleven months to say Kaddish with Mom. “Your father would be so happy to know you’re saying Kaddish for him,” she would say. So he earned her blessing, pleasing her with the great kindness that only the living can receive.


Nothing could stop our bickering in the back seat of the family car, certainly not our mother’s oft-repeated question, “How can you expect peace in the world, when two brothers can’t get along?” But we didn’t expect peace. In our Hebrew school stories, Cain killed rather than see his brother Abel preferred, Ishmael taunted his half-brother, Isaac, even if it meant exile, Jacob was ready to steal and Esau to murder for what he could never get, the one indivisible blessing. And now we brothers share a meal on each other’s birthday, talk about our sleep apnea and cholesterol levels, the kids’ job prospects, and also about Israelis and Palestinians, my brother incredulous at how little Israel cares about how it looks before the world, embarrassed as only a Diaspora Jew can be; me, saddened by this brothers’ quarrel, brothers who keep rising from their graves to deceive and fight, to kill and be killed again, united only by their shared family plot, where they pause for a moment while each one buries his dead.

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